The Last Word: Lars Ulrich on Metallica's Darkest Times, Making His Own Rules

Drummer also talks idolizing James Hetfield, reading Bruce Springsteen and why film tops music

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The Last Word: Lars Ulrich on Metallica's Darkest Times, Making His Own Rules
Listen to Metallica's Lars Ulrich discuss the band's controversial battle with Napster.

For 35 years, Lars Ulrich has served as Metallica's outspoken and flamboyant drummer. The son of a Danish tennis pro and jazz critic, Ulrich grew up surrounded by music and fell in love with Deep Purple at a young age, leading him to discover Motörhead, Diamond Head and Metallica's subsequent major influences. As a teenager, he co-founded the group in 1981 with singer-guitarist James Hetfield, and he has since co-written most of the band's catalogue, including hits like "Enter Sandman," "One" and "Master of Puppets."

The band's last five records have debuted at Number One on Billboard – dating back to its 1991 self-titled outing, the best-selling LP of the last quarter century – making it one of the most popular metal groups of all time. Next week, Metallica will put out their 10th studio album, Hardwired … to Self-Destruct, a two-CD collection of 12 typically crushing and thrashing metal ragers, all co-written by Ulrich and released on the group's own Blackened label.

In advance of the record's release, Ulrich granted Rolling Stone one of his most introspective interviews ever, speaking in depth about the spoils of success, how he handles regret and what makes him tick.

What's the best part of success?
On the personal side, giving back to your family. On the musical side, it's having the freedom to go in whichever direction you want to. A case in point would be that we don't go on tour for longer than two weeks at a time. We did almost 200 shows in two-week increments for [2008's] Death Magnetic. We don't want to miss out on seeing our kids.

What's the worst part?
I don't think there is a "worst part" [laughs]. I think you should stop whining and be happy that somebody gives a shit.

Some people might complain about being spotted while out.
We sort of occupy a kind of a middle ground on that side of it, in terms of fame and celebrity. We live in northern California; we don't get bothered to the point where it's a nuisance. I don't know what it's like to be Tom Cruise or somebody at that level. I think we're just about well enough known to get into any restaurant that we want [laughs], and we don't get bothered or hounded by paparazzi to the point where it's a nuisance.

Who are your heroes?
People who challenge the status quo. In no particular order: my dad, Steve Jobs, James Hetfield, [painter] Mark Rothko. People who encourage you to be selfless, like [Salesforce CEO] Marc Benioff. People like Ritchie Blackmore who are completely impulsive – you have no idea what's gonna come out of his mouth or his guitar three minutes from now. [Metallica co-manager] Cliff Burnstein always taught me to think differently and independently and outside the box.

Why is James one of your heroes?
He is just the coolest musician. He's put up with my shit for 35 years, so there's gotta be appreciation in there for that. Sometimes I think he may be underappreciated in terms of just how vast his talent is.

You guys clashed in the movie Some Kind of Monster. What have you learned about settling band disagreements?
I've learned that there's nothing more important than the health of the band. Rather than force people to do something they don't want to do, there's always going to be another opportunity to create something cool.

What did you learn about yourself from watching that movie?
[Laughs] It was pretty hard. [Pauses] I have an ability to compartmentalize stuff that sometimes scares me because I could sit there and watch this whole ordeal but I can remove myself emotionally from the fact that that was me. I could "third person" it. Some of the other guys have been more transparent about how difficult it was for them. We all dealt with it in different ways; I dealt with it by shoving it under a rug, which obviously is Psychiatry 101 that you shouldn't do that. Some of it was just so difficult I had to emotionally remove myself.

Did you not like what you saw?
Nah, I guess it was too painful to watch some of the stuff unfold in front of me. I was proud of the fact that we were completely transcendent and let people in. Obviously, there's some of stuff that just felt like it was too private or almost voyeuristic. The people who criticized it said it was TMI. It's that thing like, don't meet your heroes because sometimes they'll let you down. It's just too much information for people, so, like I said, I would compartmentalize it. But don't get me wrong. I'm proud of the fact we did the movie and had the balls to share it.

"With Napster, we jumped straight down to 'Fuck these guys! Let's go after them.'"

The only thing that scares me about myself is that I have the ability to not be scared. Sometimes I can just be so thick-skinned that it actually freaks me out. In the wake of the Napster thing, I took some pretty heavy hits there. I just learned to kind of put the turtle shell on and not be affected by any of it.

What did you learn from the Napster backlash?
I learned that the thing that I love about Metallica is that we're very impulsive. That impulsivity occasionally bites us in the ass, because we jump before we know where we're landing. In a creative environment, that's a great situation. But with Napster, we jumped straight down to "Fuck these guys! Let's go after them." [Laughs] And then all of a sudden, we were just like a deer caught in the headlights. I underestimated what Napster meant to people in terms of the freedom it represented. So I think that sometimes even if you don't want to, you gotta kinda just do a little bit of due diligence before you jump – at least have an idea of where you think you're gonna land [laughs].

With Napster, your fans thought you were targeting them.
That was the brilliance of the other side. It was between us and Napster, and then Napster made it between us and the fans, which was a really, really smart move. That was not the intention. Napster wasn't about money. It wasn't about commerce. It wasn't about copyright. It was literally about choice. Whose choice is it to make your music available for free downloads? We were saying, "Hang on. It should be our choice." And then other people had different opinions and it became about whether you're greedy or about money. And all of a sudden it was like, "Huh? What? Where the fuck did that come from? We're not greedy! Wait a minute, who changed the direction of this whole argument?" [Laughs] That was the part that kind of threw us.

Nearly 15 years later, as the music industry continues to stumble, you were right about Napster.
That and a quarter will get you on the bus, as they say.

Cliff Burton, Metallica's bassist on your first three albums, died three decades ago this year. How did you find the strength to keep moving after that?
We just jumped into a vodka bottle and remained there for a few years. Our M.O. at that time was just to have the blinders on. We drank our way through pretty much any obstacles. When you're 22, you don't know how to deal with grief. You don't know how to deal with emotion. You don't know how to deal with loss. You just keep going. You never stop long enough to ask questions or take a temperature check. You just keep going.

Metallica embraced the nickname "Alcoholica" in the Eighties. How did you learn to drink responsibly?
Who said it was responsibly? [Laughs] You learn as you grow older. Age and experience just knock on the door at some point and you go, "OK, I don't want to wake up or pass out in that situation again." I'm lucky in that I don't have an addictive personality. I still drink – I don't indulge in anything else – but I made the conscious decision to stop whatever else I was doing.

What are the most important rules you live by?
[Laughs]. I'm not a big rule guy generally. A saying from way back in the day was when you make the rules yourself, then you can break them whenever you want. I adhere to that. But I have always had this thing about follow-through. If you say it, do it. If you say it, you mean it. I don't know if that's a rule or just something that's part of my DNA, even to the point of bugging people around me.

What is your favorite city in the world?
San Francisco, closely followed by Copenhagen. But San Francisco has all the different elements of things I enjoy in life. It's very much about the future and thinking ahead, but it has a detailed and storied past. To me, it's the most European city in North America: it has a cultural and social aesthetic that's very European. It's close to water and to the wine country. There's a lot of options for weekend escapes. Some of the smartest people in the world live here. And there's a great, rich sense of culture, like the hippie movement and the Grateful Dead and the music. It's not New York or L.A. – I associate those cities with work but I can't rest there.

You grew up in Denmark. What's the most Danish thing about you?
My big forehead? [Laughs] My wife says I'm a cozy guy. There's a Danish word, hygge, which translates loosely to "cozy." There's a kind of Danish hygge thing where you invite people over, you light candles, you have some wine and hang out. The other thing is I'm sort of self-deprecating. I also have a little bit of contrariness to the status quo about pushing the envelope. It's poking fun. It's something you have to be Danish to understand.

Lukas Graham has become Denmark's most famous musicians of late, and he grew up in Copenhagen's Freetown Christiania. What do you make of him?
I've been following him. They played in San Francisco a few months ago, but something else came up and I missed him. But every time I do an interview with anybody in Denmark, they always ask me what I think of him [laughs]. He's just about the most successful Danish export of the moment. I feel like I know him well, even though we've never met. But all Danish people are somehow related to each other, so I feel like I know him [laughs]. One of ours.

Another hero you mentioned is your dad. What life lessons has he taught you?
Certain elements of principle and hovering outside of the norm. His day job was in the world of tennis, and in the Fifties and Sixties, that world was quite conservative but he stood out as a guy with long hair and a long beard who brought a different kind of eccentricity to tennis – an almost philosophical approach.

How have you learned to balance your music career with fatherhood?
We put some boundaries and a few rules in place. The best thing that happened to this band is we all became parents pretty much at the same time, and we all went in that direction at the same time – willingly. It wasn't two guys who were dads and the others kept the candle burning. So at some point our priorities just got switched between Metallica and family so we ended up prioritizing our families and kids and spouses. It took a few years to get the clarity and courage to call up our managers and say we aren't going to do something or that when we tour we're going to have a week at home. If you could see our internal schedule, it's like, so-and-so's spring break, so-and-so's ski week, so-and-so is out for the holidays. We weave Metallica into our schedules.

"If there's one record you can listen to forwards, backwards and upside down, it's Miles Davis' Kind of Blue."

What do you do to relax, besides hygge?
Relax? What does that mean? [Laughs] I guess film is my passion. I follow film more than music, art and literature. I envelop myself in it. I read about film. I see films. I go to movie theaters. I watch films at home. I watch films on demand. I get screeners. I follow filmmakers and read what they have to say. I look at films as being the most vital form of the creative process – that's where there's the most room for new frontiers and people doing stuff.

What have been your favorite movies lately?
October and November are the two best months of the year for film, so there's lots of great stuff comings for film geeks like myself. I saw La La Land last week, which is the next film by Damien Chazelle, who wrote and directed Whiplash. It's coming in December. That's gonna blow a lot of people's minds. It's great; it's a musical. And I saw a German film a couple days ago called Toni Erdmann, which was a big hit at Cannes. It blew my mind; it's the very unusual combination of a German film that was a comedy – a rare genre [laughs]. I saw a film a couple of days ago called Moonlight from Brad Pitt's production company, Plan B, which is about an African-American guy growing up in Miami and the different things that he deals with in his childhood. There's three stages to it: his childhood, his high school years and his adult life. Fantastic film. I saw Ken Loach's film recently called I, Daniel Blake, which is amazing. It won the Golden Palm at Cannes Film Festival. It's a great film about England and about the social system in England. It's a very heavy film.

What music moves you the most?
The stuff that's embedded in you from your life experiences. Bob Marley's Babylon by Bus will probably always be a record that has some sort of significance in my life. I started listening to it a lot when it came out in '78. Some of it was recorded in Denmark at the Roskilde Festival, but it's one of those constant records I always go back to. Then there's something like Kind of Blue, where you can sit there and talk about jazz or [John] Coltrane or [Charlie] Parker or Dexter Gordon; if there's one record you can listen to forwards, backwards and upside down, it's Kind of Blue. It always sounds just as great as the first time you heard it. And I feel that way about [Deep Purple's] Made in Japan. I first heard it in 1973, and it hasn't lost any of its magic. And when I hear [Black Sabbath's] Master of Reality, in some perverse way it still reminds me of being 13 and smoking black Afghan hash for the first time with my friends in my room [laughs]. And it always moves me when I hear Indian raga music ... and I have certain things I put on occasionally like Glenn Gould's piano interpretations of classical stuff.

What did you read as a kid, and what does it say about you?
I was introduced to Mad magazine in '76 when I was traveling with my dad in America. It introduced me to a lot of American culture. It's always been my thing being an outsider, being autonomous, slightly cynical of the mainstream – Mad brought that.

The other thing in my childhood was Tintin, Asterix and Lucky Luke – these were all European comic books, but they were in book form rather than magazine form. The one thing they all had in common was they were all adventurous and putting themselves in strange, unusual situations and trying to be creative and figure out how to make shit happen.

What are you reading now?
I downloaded the Springsteen book two weeks ago. I read the stories in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair and saw something on 60 Minutes and thought I should check it out. I love the way he writes; it's like his lyrics. It's incredibly poetic. I love how open he is about depression and his issues.

Have you considered writing your own memoir?
I do occasionally think about that, but it's not something that's imminent. When I read certain books by people, especially people who I maybe know, there's times where I'll read something and I'm like, "Wait a minute, that's not exactly what happened," or "That's a little more of a PG version of what happened." I always feel like it's difficult with that kind of stuff because there's a part of me again, the Danish part, where if you're gonna do something like that, you gotta write the truth. And if you're gonna write the truth, you may implicate people around you who may not necessarily want certain elements of stuff out there

If I was writing my own thing, I don't feel like I'd want to dumb it down, but at the same time, if I did something with X and X in 1988 and we went on this crazy adventure together, I shouldn't be the one taking for granted that that person would want that story told. It's a little bit like social media. "Do you know that that person wants you to post that picture?" [Laughs] It's about respecting other people's right to privacy or their choices. Listen, I'm not saying that it would be 300 pages of crazy stories; I'm just saying I don't think I could ever write [a memoir] because I think I would always be concerned that I was saying something about somebody else that they may not want to share. That's a principle I got from my dad.

What was your most indulgent purchase?
There have been periods in my life, not so much recently, where I would spend a lot of money on clothes. I'd spend, like, three grand on a suit, and two years later you're looking through your closet, like, "Fuck, there's that suit I bought. I never even wore it. It's still got fucking tags on it." Thankfully, it's not something that happens much anymore.

What advice would you give your younger self?
"Slow down. Take it all in. Appreciate what's going on instead of being in such a hurry." The opposite of when Dave Grohl says, "Done, done and on to the next one." There were a lot of experiences in the Eighties and Nineties that I just never fully took in. We were in Russia in '91, in the thick of the fall of the Soviet Union. I just wish I had opened my eyes a little more because I don't have a recollection of what was going on around me. I don't regret it, but nowadays you just pause a little longer to take it all in, like, "Wow, this is pretty crazy."